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Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: July 26, 2008
By Father Erik Pohlmeier
Theological Consultant for Arkansas Catholic
July 25th marks the 40th anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Few documents of the Church have caused a stir like this one of Pope Paul VI. At the time it was widely expected that the Church would change a long held teaching regarding contraception. The invention of the birth control pill was seen by many as revolutionary, as something clearly for the good of society. The Holy Father saw otherwise.
While many tried to dismiss him as completely out of touch he not only upheld the prohibition on contraception he reflected on the consequences of adopting a contraceptive mentality. His words have turned out to be prophetic as he warned of a general break down of the family that would follow increased divorce and domestic violence among other ills. Since that day the problems facing marriage are well documented and have personally affected nearly every person.
In issuing an encyclical the Successor of Peter is not merely offering his opinion, but is teaching in his official capacity as Vicar of Christ and chief shepherd of the Church on earth. It is for his teaching that we have the divine guarantee given to Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. It is our basic Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit is at work in the teaching of the Church and God always has the good of his people in mind.
In the last 40 years an enormous amount has been written both criticizing and defending Humanae Vitae. In practice a large percentage of Catholics (among both laity and clergy) have simply ignored the teaching. Those who criticize often say the Church overstepped her boundaries. Those who defend point out that sexuality is given by God and must follow his design. Couples who make every effort to follow the Church’s teaching stand as the greatest witnesses to the power of marriage totally submitted to God’s plan.
The moment of this anniversary offers an opportunity that is important for the life of the Church and all who commit to the sacrament of marriage. This is an opportunity to experience in a new way the words of Our Lord, “The truth will set you free.” To understand this teaching one of the first steps is to see the bigger picture.
Too often in our society, even among Catholics, sex is seen as nothing more than an activity between consenting adults. This attitude leads to an increasing reference to sex as casual. The truth is something much more profound and hardly casual. The truth is that the act of marriage is a total giving of self to another person to whom you have committed your entire being. Such commitment is only possible in the sacrament of marriage, because only then is the desire of two people transformed into the bond that is marriage. Only in the hands of God can two become one new person.
On the wedding day two people speak with their words the desire for a life joined in perfect intimacy. From that day the sexual embrace gives life to those words. God who joins husband and wife on one day asks to be present every other day, so that the work he began can grow and deepen with the passing of years.
The bigger picture is that God desires to give life to marriage because of the continued gift of self, most fully expressed in the sexual embrace. Each time the promise of the wedding day is renewed, in the loving gift of self, God gives life. Once in awhile it will be flesh and blood life and a child will be conceived.
To use contraception is to say to God that he is no longer welcome. The gift of flesh and blood life is unwanted. If God is unwelcome then neither can he strengthen the bond he created. Then sex begins to wear away at that bond because it no longer expresses the total gift of self that is the promise of marriage. Sex becomes a lie because of what is withheld from the gift.
It is this truth that prompted Pope Paul VI to maintain the long held teaching of the Church against contraception and to emphasize that the sexual act must be both unitive and procreative. As a shepherd he was not overstepping his boundaries but leading the flock into the freedom that comes from following God’s plan. Our prayer is for the conversion of hearts necessary so that marriage for each couple can truly be a loving embrace with the total gift of self expressed on the wedding day.
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic July 26, 2008. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.